2017 Tour will scale all of France’s moun­tains

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

For the first time in 25 years, all five moun­tain ranges of con­ti­nen­tal France will fea­ture in next year's Tour de France, in a stretched-out en­durance test of rac­ing that smiles on the climb­ing strengths of de­fend­ing cham­pion Chris Froome and his Colom­bian ri­val, Nairo Quin­tana.

In their quest to keep the 113year-old race young, Tour or­ga­niz­ers have again un­earthed fresh chal­lenges from the ge­og­ra­phy of France for the three-week slog, with new climbs and, on stage 18, an un­prece­dented moun­tain-top fin­ish on the pun­ish­ing Col d'Izoard high in the Alps — a rocky, hos­tile and lu­nar ter­rain that could be the fi­nal big bat­tle­ground for the win­ner's check of 500,000 eu­ros ($550,000).

"That's go­ing to be one of the re­ally de­ci­sive stages," said Froome, the race win­ner for Team Sky in 2013, 2015 and again this year.

Be­fore that, on stage 12 in the Pyre­nees, the Tour climbs to the Peyragudes ski sta­tion where parts of the James Bond movie "To­mor­row Never Dies" were filmed in 1997.

From its July 1 start in Dus­sel­dorf, Ger­many, to the July 23 fin­ish on the Champs-El­y­sees in Paris, the 3,516-kilo­me­ter (2,185mile) route will wind over climbs in the Vos­ges, Jura, Mas­sif Cen­tral, Pyre­nees and Alps. Not since the Tour of 1992 have or­ga­niz­ers made rid­ers take on all five moun­tain ranges.

"It looks hard," said Aus­tralian rider Richie Porte, who fin­ished fifth for the BMC Rac­ing team this year.

The tough­est climbs — graded two, one and un­clas­si­fied on cy­cling's ris­ing scale of dif­fi­culty — will be slightly fewer next year: 23 in to­tal com­pared to 28 this year and 25 in both 2015 and 2014. But they will be scat­tered across a 14 day-spread, rather than be­ing con­cen­trated in two blocks in the Alps and Pyre­nees, and will in­clude six es­pe­cially teeth-grind­ingly steep as­cents. The Col du Grand Colom­bier in the Jura has 22-per­cent gra­di­ents. Rid­ers will have to ar­rive at the Tour in good climb­ing form, and main­tain that strength, to com­pete for the ti­tle.

With just three moun­tain-top fin­ishes, in­clud­ing the Izoard, that are so of­ten de­ci­sive on the Tour, ti­tle con­tenders like Froome may have to also race hard on other ter­rains to shake off their ri­vals.

"It could make the race a lot more tac­ti­cal in the moun­tains," Froome said. "It opens the door up for peo­ple to be more ag­gres­sive."

Just five days in, the 198 rid­ers will face the rel­a­tively short but very sharp shock of climb­ing to the Planche des Belles Filles ski sta­tion in the Vos­ges, with legsear­ing 20-per­cent gra­di­ents, in eastern France.

"The first big shake-up," Porte said.

With lit­tle time for rid­ers to catch their breath, the Tour then swings south for more climbs on stages eight and nine in the Jura, be­fore cross­ing France to the west.

The pelo­ton will spend one very long day — 214 kilo­me­ters (133 miles) — fol­lowed by one short one — 100 kilo­me­ters (62 miles) — in the Pyre­nees. The race then heads north again to the Mas­sif Cen­tral range, where climbs and pos­si­ble strong winds up high could catch out un­wit­ting rid­ers on stage 15 to Le Puy-en-Ve­lay, part of it on roads so off the beaten track that they don't ap­pear on some maps.

"The sort of stage where we can hope for un­usual things to hap­pen," said race di­rec­tor Thierry Gou­ve­nou, who helped draw up the route.

Two in­di­vid­ual time tri­als — the first over 13 kilo­me­ters (8 miles) on day one in Dus­sel­dorf; the last, over 23 kilo­me­ters (14 miles), on the penul­ti­mate stage in Mar­seille — will book­end the Tour be­fore the fin­ish in Paris but prom­ise to be too short to be de­ci­sive in the over­all out­come.

"It's very light on time tri­als, so, for sure, the race is go­ing to be won or lost de­pend­ing on what hap­pens in the moun­tains," said Froome, who named two-time run­ner-up Quin­tana first among his list of ex­pected ri­vals. "I'm go­ing to have to be as good as I can be in the moun­tains. That's go­ing to be my fo­cus."

In a re­mark­able piece of show­man­ship on the fi­nal stage in Paris, the rid­ers will race through the iconic Grand Palais, a gi­ant stee­land-glass struc­ture built for the world's fair in 1900, on their way to the sprint fin­ish on the Champ­sEl­y­sees, with the aim of high­light­ing one of the sites that could be used for Olympic events if Paris wins its bid to host the 2024 Games.

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